Thursday, May 12, 2011

Seeing what has always been there...

I was talking with a parishioner a while ago who brought up a couple of questions about what was going on at the altar during the consecration.  He admitted that he had not usually paid all that much attention to what I did while speaking the words of the canon (preface, proper preface, prayer of thanksgiving, Verba Christi, and Pax) but he had started watching me and rather intently, at that.  He was sure that he had watched me before but either he had not seen or simply not paid much attention to what was going on.  Now, he found himself very focused on the actions that accompanied the precious words.  He wondered how long I had been doing what I do -- the answer, for about 31 years overall and going on 19 here in Clarksville.  It was always there but he had not seen what had always been there.

What he was referring to were the gestures, the placement of the hands, the head bowed down over the elements at the words "Take eat/drink.... this is My body/blood," the elevation that followed at the words "do this in remembrance of Me," my profound bow or genuflection afterwards, the lifting up of the cup and ciborium at the words "as often as we eat of this bread and drink of this cup we proclaim the Lord's death until He comes," the hands extended up during the Our Father, and the cup and large host elevated during the Pax Domini and the Agnue Dei... among other things...  When he first saw it, he could not help but watch it and now he seemed attracted to this like a magnet attracts steel.  It was always there, but only now seen.

The language (vocabulary, pattern of words, etc.) of the liturgy is always there -- that is why we call it the ordinary -- and yet so often we miss what it is that they say and what it is that they mean.  The ritual gestures (church usages, ceremonies, etc.) are also always there but they are often missed or overlooked in the same way the words often pass us by without much notice.  Yet both of them speak volumes about what we believe, teach, and confess.  Faithful, orthodox words are surely important and faithful, orthodox practice is also important but when both come together in the context of the Divine Service, they build upon each other, support each other, and make each other stronger and deeper.

At the sedelia I sit in the middle with an assisting minister (diaconal style) on my right and one of the altar servers (acolytes) on my left.  I am not a stickler for uniformity and we do not practice doing things in step but it is amazing to me how I see in my peripheral vision that the people on either side of me mirror my own posture and gestures during the liturgy.  I do not consciously notice this but I still see it from time to time.  The movement of hands making the sign of the cross at the invocation, absolution, creed, benediction, etc... the bowing at the name of Jesus... the clasp of the hands...  One Sunday I had occasion to pay a bit more attention to the altar server (acolyte) and afterwards ask him when he began crossing himself, bowing, etc..  He said that he had never really thought about it but he guessed it began with his service at the altar.  So what about now?  Well, now it was natural to him.  It was instinctive.  It flowed from what was going on.

What we do in word and gesture in the liturgy is foreign to the world and alien to that portion of us in which the old nature still lives in rebellion and yet when transported into the context of the Divine Service, what was alien or strange to us becomes natural and flows directly from the words of the liturgy that are spoken and sung and prayed.  That is exactly the point why we need to be in church often and regularly assembled in the name of the Lord, around His Word and His Table.  That this place may become to us the more comfortable home and its unfamiliarity slowly fade as we become more and more natural within the flow of words and actions that comprise the Divine Service.  It is then that we begin to see what has always been there.

Once a person commented to me after watching what happened when a spill of the chalice occurred during the distribution.  It was only then when I stopped, knelt down in my vestments, and carefully cleaned up the spill with the purificator and returned to the distribution that she realized what she had always known.  The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not our koinonia/participation in the blood of Christ!  Of course it was.  It always was!  But at that moment when she saw how we treated an accidental spill, she realized in a far different way what those words really meant.

The same thing happened during a baptism. I normally hold in my arms all baptismal candidates -- well, all but the larger toddler size and adults.  As I held the child I had just baptized into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I spoke to the child:  The almighty God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has given you the new birth of water and of the Spirit and has forgiven you all your sins, strengthen you with His grace to + life everlasting.  I anoint you with the salutary oil of eternal life in our Lord Jesus Christ.  The woman said to me afterwards that she had never realized that I was not talking about something or addressing the parents but actually speaking to the child who had become the child of God by baptism.  It was in seeing me address the infant in my arms and hearing me speak those words that she realized what she had always known -- baptism does what it promises and from the moment of the water and Word applied, that child IS a child of God.  She found it most shocking and yet and wonderfully comforting to see the action that accompanied those words and drew attention to what has just happened. 

Seeing what is always there is the burning of the heart by the power of the Spirit, drawing faith out from its  fringes to the center and to focus upon what His Word promises and does:  Christ is here, rich with His gifts, graciously bestowing them, lavish in His generosity, and loving without limit... in water that kills and makes alive, in words that forgive and remove guilt, in bread and wine that bestow His flesh and blood... for the forgiveness of our sins, for the bestowal and strengthening of our faith, and for the pledge and promise of eternal life to come....


Anonymous said...

It is wonderful to receive the
Sacrament of Holy Communion in my
parish and realize that ritual
gestures add nothing to the validity
of the Sacrament. You can gesture
and genuflect and elevate all you
want, but all this is extra and non
Biblical stuff. The focus is Christ
not the actions of the presiding

Anonymous said...

Anonymous you missed the point. The gestures do not replace the Word but accompany the Word. They display in action what the Word says while it is being spoken. You don't have to bow your head or fold your hands when you pray but I bet you do. Honestly, read what the Pastor is saying here. Not what you fear (that the focus is on the actions of the presiding pastor).

Jerry said...

Thank You for this post. It is a great reminder of what we receive in the Divine Service. And that we receive far more than we give.